Friday 16 June 2023

Colour, text & character: Dresden Music Festival launches its historically informed Ring cycle with gripping Das Rheingold

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Derek Welton, Kent Nagano, Mauro Peter, Daniel Schmutzhard, Concerto Köln & Dresdner Festspielorchester - Dresden Music Festival
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Derek Welton, Kent Nagano, Mauro Peter, Daniel Schmutzhard, Concerto Köln & Dresdner Festspielorchester - Dresden Music Festival

Wagner: Das Rheingold: Derek Welton, Mauro Peter, Daniel Schmutzhard, Katrin Wundsam, Gerhild Romberger, Concerto Köln, Dresdner Festspielorchester, Kent Nagano; Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast, Dresden
Reviewed 14 June 2023

I found myself gripped and entranced from beginning to end, an historically informed Das Rheingold proves to be something magical

You remember your first performance of Das Rheingold? Of course you do, one's first exposure to Wagner's Vorabend des Bühnenfestpiels 'Der Ring des Nibelungens has a special excitement and energy about it. There was something of that quality in listeners and performers alike at the performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Dresden Music Festival (Dresdner Musikfestspiele) in Dresden's Kulturpalast on 14 June 2023. This was an historically informed performance (HIP) with Kent Nagano conducting the combined forces of period instrument ensembles, Concerto Köln and the Dresden Festival Orchestra (Dresdner Festspielorchester). Part of a planned Ring cycle, with the instalments coming annually, the performance built on period performances of Das Rheingold by Concerto Köln and Kent Nagano as part of the Wagner Lesarten project. The whole has an academic superstructure, looking at what HIP means in the context of Wagner. And just as any performance of Das Rheingold is only the start of Ring journey, we should see this performance as being part of a work in progress, and exploration, rather than a definitive statement.

Concerto Köln & Dresdner Festpielorchester before the performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold
Concerto Köln & Dresdner Festspielorchester before the performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Dresden Music Festival

Whilst Concerto Köln has given previous performances of Das Rheingold, the Dresden Festival Orchestra has, over the last few years, been exploring the symphonic music of Richard Wagner's contemporaries [I caught their live stream of Schumann's symphonies in 2021, see my review]. Together, their combined forces numbered close on 100 players, not to mention the dozen young performers required for the anvils. Quadruple woodwind, seven harps (six on-stage and one off-stage), two timpanists, five horns and five Wagner tubas. We have rarely seen this many period instrument specialists assembled on one stage.

From the outset, you noticed the performance's sense of colour and character. Individual instrumental lines each came with a distinct timbre, and the string sound made room for the wind instruments in a way that is different from modern orchestral practice. For all that there were loud moments (the two timpanists at full throttle in the memorable climax of the 'Descent into Nibelheim', for instance), this was not a performance that was massive for its own sake, the large orchestra was about creating a rich palate, not sheer mass.

You can read treatises till you are blue in the face, but we can never completely recreate what was heard at the first performances or what Wagner heard in his head. That is why such modern performances are works in progress. But what was completely clear was this was not simply a standard Das Rheingold cast, albeit with period instrument accompaniments, you sensed a shift in vocal attitudes too.

This was a very text-based performance. Not just fine diction from the cast - you could indeed follow without surtitles, and how many Wagner performances can you say that about - but using the text as a real engine for the whole. Yes, there were expansive long vocal lines, but much of the opera is in dialogue and characters such as Alberich (Daniel Schmutzhard) and Loge (Mauro Peter) made the text really count. The sheer sound of the words had an energy of its own, and I understand work was done on the pronunciation expected by Wagner. There were moments of sprech-stimme too; this speaking of key words to heighten emotion was evidently something that Wagner's favourite soprano, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (the first Senta and Venus), used to do. For me, the jury is still out, but we don't achieve historically informed performances by picking out the bits we like and leaving the rest.

Though billed as a concert performance, the cast was off the book and thought had gone into the presentation with more than just entrances and exits. These characters fully interacted, they existed in their own dramatic space and the singers created a real sense of impulsive, often gripping, drama.

Wotan was Derek Welton, a singer whose roles have encompassed both a gripping Klingsor in Wagner's Parsifal and roles in Meyerbeer's operas [we caught him in Le prophete in 2020, see my review], and he made his role debut as Wotan at the Deutsche Oper in 2021 [see Tony's review for Planet Hugill]. His Wotan was one of the most finely sung accounts of the role that I have ever come across. Welton sang with a wonderfully expansive and firm sense of line. Yet there was nothing effete about this Wotan, he was a self-consciously strong man, short-sighted and something of a bully. Welton was mesmeric too, bringing out Wotan's charisma.

As Loge, Mauro Peter, singing his first Wagner role, was vocally closer to Tamino than many Loges, but this was a glorious rethinking of the role. Lighter yet full of character, this Loge oozed self-satisfied mischief and chatty charm; Peter brought a wonderfully conversational patter to the role, complete with asides to the audience, and it is no surprise to realise that Peter is a fine lieder singer. Rather than making Wagner's music-drama sui generis, this brought out the links and debts that Wagner owed to contemporaries and predecessors. Peter seemed to be a natural stage animal, despite the minimal staging his Loge was vividly drawn.

Daniel Schmutzhard's Alberich (his role debut was with Kent Nagano and Concerto Köln in 2021), was certainly no nasty caricature. Known for his lyric baritone roles, Schmutzhard made Alberich wary, entitled and rather nasty in a fiercely intelligent way. Schmutzhard brought out the wordy chatteriness of the character but unlike Mauro Peter's Loge, there was no lightness here, Schmutzhard used Wagner's alliterative stabreim to superb effect. But in the moments when the music does get expansive, Schmutzhard was more than equal, a fine line making his curse all the more chilling.

Katrin Wundsam made Fricka rather less of a harridan than usual, giving her music surprising vivacity and liveliness, making a superb contrast to Welton's Wotan. The other character able to match Wotan for the sense of expansive line was Gerhild Romberger's Erda. Whereas Welton's Wotan used his music to impose, as Erda Romberger mesmerised in her appearance from on high in the rear balcony. She spun wonderfully enchanted lines that seduced and hypnotised; a poised and very apposite performance. Nadja Mchantaf was an engaging Freia, drawing a vivid character. As the Rhine maidens, Ania Vegry, Ida Adrian and Eva Vogel drew together in their Andrews Sisters moments, whilst each created a distinct character and in their initial scene with Alberich, though they teased they felt less air headed than usual.

As Fasolt and Fafner, Tijl Faveyts and Tilmann Rönnebeck were strong yet not unbearable, a sense of intelligence was there too. You thought of the writers as far back as George Bernard Shaw (in The Perfect Wagnerite) who see this opera as an allegory of capitalism. Faveyts also won our sneaking sympathy for his admiration of Freia. Thomas Ebenstein's Mime was vividly drawn with Ebenstein embellishing the role with all manner of exclamations, shouts and whines. Incidentally, the screams of the Nibelungs were provided very creditably by the members of the orchestra! Dominik Köninger and Tansel Akzeybek provided strong support as Donner and Froh.

Kent Nagano's approach to the music was highly responsive, he allowed his orchestra to bring out a welter of wonderful detail, relishing the colours and timbres and the way these inflect the themes. There were plenty of magical moments, the way the 'Descent into Nibelheim' wasn't just about the anvils (off-stage and unamplified), the colours of the horns in the very opening, the horns and Wagner tubas making magic in the Tarnhelm music - the list is endless.

Yet, Nagano also drew his performers into a gripping drama. This was a performance that had impulse, a sense of the music in large-scale paragraphs and an arc from beginning to end. Das Rheingold is not my favourite of Wagner's operas, yet here I found myself gripped and entranced from beginning to end. Entranced by the myriad colours the HIP approach revealed, yet gripped by the drama that the performers created. There was also a lack of the portentousness that can sometimes overcome Ring performances, the sense that rather than creating a vital music drama, this is something greater. There was none of that here, the music was presented in a way which recognised the context and influences that came to Wagner. I certainly hope that this approach continues as the Ring Cycle develops.

Plenty of nits could be picked, but that is for another time when we are further on this journey.  But there is no doubt that one of the hottest opera tickets for 2024 is set to be the performance of Wagner's Die Walküre at the Dresden Music Festival.

This performance of Das Rheingold is touring to Cologne (18 August), Ravello (20 August) and Lucerne (22 August). There is one place missing from the list. Just think what it would mean for our understanding of Wagner's sound world if we could hear such a finely intelligent and well though-out HIP account of his music in his own theatre at Bayreuth.

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